Every picture may tell a story, but that doesn’t mean it necessarily should. One certainly wishes the images would keep quiet in artist-filmmaker Gustav Deutsch’s attractive but increasingly banal “Shirley — Visions of Reality,” in which the immediately recognizable paintings of much-appropriated American realist Edward Hopper serve as the backdrop for an ill-fitting study of 20th-century social change as viewed through the eyes of one unrelentingly earnest New York actress. A foray into fiction of sorts for Deutsch, but still of a piece with his previous experimental work, meticulously designed pic might be more at home on the gallery screening circuit.
“Shirley” was allegedly the name given by Hopper’s own family members to the voluptuous blue-clad secretary featured prominently in one of his most iconic paintings, “Office at Night” (1940) — a fact of which Deutsch is presumably aware, as he imagines the women featured in 13 equally famous Hopper works as a single, continuous character of the same name, with each scene a methodically reconstructed tableau of the painting in question.
Wanly played by indeterminately accented Canadian dancer Stephanie Cumming (who resembles a more haunted-looking Jessica Chastain at certain angles), this svelter Shirley is not so much as a protagonist as a soliloquy-favoring mouthpiece for Deutsch’s sometimes wobbly, sometimes obvious observations on art and politics, as the film browses through four decades of American history from 1932-63. (As if to emphasize that she’s not a character in the traditional sense, she shows no signs of physical or emotional aging from beginning to end.)
Dropping in on Shirley on assorted years within that 31-year timespan — but always on the same sweltering date, Aug. 28 — Deutsch checks off World War II, McCarthyism, the civil rights movement and even the onset of the Vietnam War in a series of internal monologues for Shirley that are naive at best, risibly pompous at worst. “The past is gone, the future is yet to come,” Shirley notes sagely, while listening to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the radio. More problematic still is the lack of any logical thematic connection between the film’s liberal agenda and Hopper’s oeuvre, which has always been conspicuously free of social commentary.
Unsurprisingly, then, the chief pleasures of “Shirley — Visions of Reality” are to be found in its exacting visual fidelity to Hopper’s work, with Deutsch’s own production design and d.p. Jerzy Palacz’s artfully calibrated lighting schemes photographically re-creating the slurred precision of his brushstrokes and the hushed primary hues of his palette. The painted backgrounds of scenic artist Hanna Schimek and the elegant costumes by contemporary fashion designer Julia Cepp add further texture to an impressive artistic homage, the experience of which is almost like rifling through a lavish animated monograph. Still, there’s something to be said for an inanimate one, not least the absence of composer David Sylvian’s drearily literal acoustic songs.